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Tampa Bay Estuary Program


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Goliath Grouper Featured Creature Archive from Tampa Bay Estuary Program

Epinephelus itajara

You won?t find one of these babies on your dinner table.

Checking in at up to 7 feet long and weighing up to 800 pounds, goliath grouper are the giants of the local grouper community, far outweighing anything you?ll find on a dinner plate.

In their heyday, goliaths, or jewfish as they were once known, were a favorite of commercial and sport fishermen. Because they gather in large groups to spawn in late summer, these slow movers were easy targets for spearfishermen as well as hook-and-line anglers.

As a result, overfishing in the 1970s and ?80s decimated their populations, and fishing for goliath grouper was banned in the United States in 1990.

These behemoths live 35 years or more, and estuaries like Tampa Bay are critical for their survival.

Researchers believe goliath grouper reproduce when females release eggs and males release sperm, and the two mix in open offshore waters. They turn into kite-shaped larvae, which eventually settle around mangrove shorelines, like those in Tampa Bay. This area has a key role to play in the goliath groupers? survival because most of the remaining mangrove habitat in the United States is located along Florida?s west coast.

Goliath Grouper

Goliath Grouper

These giant fish are considered juveniles until they are about three feet long, hanging out in the mangrove habitat, chowing down on crustaceans and fish, as well as octopuses and young sea turtles.

Once they pass their teen years, the fish move to shallow reefs, and eventually join their elders in deeper waters offshore, typically no more than 150 feet deep. There they like to hunker down around natural and artificial reefs, as well as shipwrecks, caves and other structures that provide some protection.

These solitary, sedentary creatures can be identified not only by their massive size, but also by their brown or yellow mottling, peppered with small black spots. They also have a massive mouth with sharp teeth, which they use to snatch up prey, typically swallowing it whole. They aren?t speedy swimmers, and instead ambush their food from their hiding places around reefs and wrecks.

Because of their formidable size, the groupers? only predators are large sharks and humans. On the flip side, their size isn?t enough to ward off the effects of cold weather and red tide, and they?re particularly vulnerable to both.

Since fishing prohibitions took effect in 1990, the goliath grouper population has been making a comeback, and in 2006 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration removed the fish from the agency?s species of concern list.

But the weeks of record cold weather during January and February 2010 killed off many goliath grouper, and researchers are still trying to determine the toll the winter weather took.

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